Conservatives Versus Cities

October 19, 2012

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s paid so much as even a passing notice of Toronto that we’re presently groaning under the weight of a downtown-suburban political divide. The entirely predictable result of an amalgamated mash-up done at the hands of a disinterested provincial government that possessed an animosity toward the city it was largely unrepresented in. At war with itself so as not to be bother to anyone else.

While it may be an extreme case what we’re experiencing at the moment, I do think it’s indicative of a wider, fundamental phenomenon cities are enduring here in North America. Conservatives, as they have been hard-wired for a few decades now, simply don’t understand and actively distrust cities, especially those parts of a city with fewer detached house than not and higher reliance on public transit to get around. It’s almost a foreign land to most conservatives who run such places like absentee landlords.

Insert ‘Conservatives’ every time you read ‘Republicans’ and ‘Tim Hudak’ or ‘Rob/Doug Ford’ for any Republican politician in these paragraphs from Kevin Baker’s New York Times Sunday Review piece from a couple weeks back, How the G.O.P. Became the Anti-Urban Party.

For Republicans, cities now became object lessons on the shortcomings of activist government and the welfare state — sinkholes of crime and social dysfunction, where Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” cavorted in their Cadillacs. The very idea of the city seemed to be a thing of the past, an archaic concept — so much so that Gerald R. Ford seriously considered letting New York go bankrupt in 1975…

Yet the national Republican Party still can’t get seem to get past its animus toward the very idea of urban life. The only place that Amtrak turns a profit is the Northeast corridor — yet all Republicans can think to do is privatize it, along with the local rail lines on which millions of Americans have been commuting into cities to work for as long as a century and a half. Republicans promise to ban same-sex marriage, make it easier for anyone to get a gun, delegitimize and destroy what they mockingly call “public employees’ unions,” and deport the immigrant workers performing so many thankless but vital tasks.

In short, they promise to rip and tear at the immensely complex fabric of city life while sneering at the entire “urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” There is a terrible arrogance here that has ramifications well beyond the Republicans’ electoral prospects.

Check out recent electoral maps in Canada. Federally, outside of Alberta, many of the country’s biggest cities are islands of red and orange surrounded by a sea of blue. In Quebec in 2011, it was essentially an orange wave.

In Ontario, provincial Tory blue can barely be seen in any of the major cities. Despite the fact Ford Nation failed to deliver the Progressive Conservatives a single seat in the 416 area code in last October’s election, Tim Hudak is doubling down in support of the mayor’s errant subways, subways, subways plan. He doesn’t seem to get that they don’t seem to get how the city functions, what its needs are.

Take for example Mayor Ford’s campaign promise to cut the number of city councillors in half, from 44 to 22 which would match the number of federal and provincial seats in the city. Why do we need 44 councillors when we have just 22 MPs and 22 MPPs, he’s asked rhetorically on numerous occasions. We don’t, is his answer, revealing a stunning and depressing lack of understanding about the differences in the job description between municipal politicians and their counterparts at the other two levels of government.

The municipalities are where the boots are on the ground, where the rubber hits the road. Councillors are the ones who deal with the day-to-day exigencies of residents. Not just the things that are under direct control of the city but the fallout from both federal and provincial legislation and regulation. Ottawa decides to cut funding for refugees, say. Who picks up the slack?

As Daniel Dale wrote in the Toronto Star yesterday, “A $21 million provincial cut to homelessness prevention funding in Toronto will make it harder for thousands of poor residents to stay out of shelters…” Queen’s Park cuts. Toronto is expected to clean the mess. Quoting Michael Shapcott, director of housing and innovation for the Wellesley Institute, Dale writes, “Unanticipated needs may well arise and then the city has to make one of two hard choices: pony up local property-tax dollars, which are of course already scarce and fully allocated elsewhere, or secondly, say to people, ‘Tough luck, can’t do anything, you’re on your own.’”

Cities deliver the services and infrastructure needed to enact the direction other levels of government dictate. Building a school or hospital is fine as far as it goes but how do you get the people there to staff those places? Where do they live? Who picks up their garbage?

Conservatives like to answer those types of questions with some variation of the private sector and be done with it. Infrastructure is for bush league players to handle when there are wars to be fought and deficits to be wrestled with. Conservatives don’t like to spend their money on other people, thus their general abhorrence of taxes. Unfortunately, without a big enough pool of money, cities don’t tend to function all that well.

Once a city gets to a certain size, its needs demand a budget that delivers services and infrastructure that keeps it operational. People must be housed safely. They must be able to get around easily. There is no way to do that on the cheap. Actually, there is but you do it poorly and everyone suffers.

As we saw in the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives got their fingers on a few ridings in the downtown core of Toronto to go along with their romp in the suburban areas of the GTA that help secure them their strong stable majority government. Traditionally, conservatives do well in the suburbs, convincing voters there that the urban cores of their cities are simply sucking them dry with their demands to house the homeless, assist the afflicted, ride around in their fancy, world class subways and for national transit strategies. Hell, Rob Ford convinced enough voters in Toronto that was the case to get himself elected mayor.

But as everyone’s slowly realizing, it’s a false divide. The urban and suburban parts that make up a city and a region are codependent not independent. Neglect of one part, left unchecked, will eventually spread to the wider whole. It’s a contagion that’s adversely affecting cities across the continent. Bridges collapse. Traffic grinds to a halt. Liveability becomes toxic.

In the face of all that, conservatives want to beat a retreat. Otherwise, to deal with the problems and possibilities of cities, you have to govern. Conservatives don’t get governing. Conservatives don’t get cities.

— urbanely submitted by Cityslikr


Selling Off Stock

May 29, 2011

(In case you missed it at the Torontoist on Wednesday, we’re reposting the post. With new, pretty pictures.)

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Just before the May 24th fireworks reignited the ongoing Pride/anti-QuAIA debate at yesterday’s Executive Committee meeting, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s (still) one-man board was given the go ahead to sell off 22 properties. While possessing moments of drama and emotion, the TCHC debate ultimately lacked the highly charged personal edge that gripped the Pride v. anti-QuAIA deputations. Perhaps that’s what happens when only one side holds all the cards.

What Tuesday’s TCHC process was also lacking in was concrete answers. And not just answers to pointed questions from visiting councillors looking to score political points. Honest to goodness answers to honest to goodness questions asked by the mayor’s allies on the Executive Committee.

Like much of the rush to foist the Ford Nation mandate onto Toronto, there’s a sense that the mayor and his team don’t have to explain themselves. They won the election, so they’re free to do as they want. All this back-and-forth is simply wasting time. Pitter patter, let’s get at her!

It was in evidence at last week’s council meeting and the debate over proposed garbage outsourcing in district 2. The staff and privatization advocates were all a little hazy when it came to the numbers and figures. Would it save $8 million? If not, how much? Any? What about diversion rates? Different? On par? Improved?

Stop with all the questions, already! We campaigned on privatizing garbage. We won. We’re going to privatize garbage.

Likewise, TCHC Managing Director Case Ootes and CEO Len Koroneos didn’t seem particularly driven to talk turkey about their recommendation to unload the 22 housing units. How many tenants would be affected by the sell off? Ummm… let me check my notes. 32. Who would be in charge of relocating the tenants losing their homes? Ummm… not sure. “The Planning Department’s not here,” the mayor offered up by way of an answer. What would be the difference in cost to the city between putting in necessary repairs and renovations and continuing to rent out units and simply unloading them as is? Ummmm… we’ll have to get back to you on that, councillor.

“A huge absence of information,” Councillor Janet Davis suggested.

The Committee wasn’t even provided with definitive numbers when it came to such fundamental inquiries about how much the city could really expect to get for selling the houses. Mr. Ootes is thinking close to $16 million. Others like Michael Shapcott at the Wellesley Institute aren’t convinced the number will be that high. Whatever sum it ends up being, the money will be applied to the backlog of repairs on other TCHC properties that is now in the neighbourhood of $650 million.

Another number that came as a surprise to some councillors at the meeting, more than a tripling of repair costs in just two years if true. And if true, it’s hard to imagine how $16 million is going to make a lick of difference in their bigger picture even 1 elevator repair at a time. Especially if we’re ultimately reducing the amount of rental units available to a list that’s already 10 years long to do it.

That seemed to be one thing we could safely conclude would happen if the sale gets approved by city council. Less TCHC housing to go around. “A reduction of capacity,” as Mr. Ootes admitted reluctantly. But, he was quick to add, we weren’t responsible. “We’re not reducing capacity,” Mr. Ootes spun. “Capacity’s being reduced because we don’t have the money.”

It is a new age, a new reality, according to Councillor Mammoliti. “We’re on our own,” he informed the room. We should never expect to see money from senior levels of government ever again. That was that.

So, wave the white flag and agree to be the hatchet men, to do the bidding of the provincial and federal governments’ respective and collective negligence in the social housing portfolio. Instead of standing up and fighting to protect the most vulnerable in our city, members of the mayor’s Executive Committee voted to use them as fodder, sacrifices to the new order. Making tough choices, it seems, means making other people pay for your lack of imagination and willingness to go to bat for your constituents.

“This particular sale of 22 houses is a start,” the unelected, unaccountable Case Ootes told reporters, undoubtedly striking fear into the hearts of every TCHC tenant.

For all the talk of having to go it alone and make choices out of enforced necessity due to fiscal restraints not personal preference (the mark of all small-minded municipal politicians who operate happily under the umbrella of not bearing ultimate responsibility), the irony of the decision to sell the houses is that, even if city council agrees, it is still pending provincial government approval. What the Executive Committee signaled with its vote to sell off TCHC properties was that it was willing to get its hands dirty and be the bad guy. That answer seems firm and unequivocal.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr